Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.
Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.
So: here it is.
On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.
My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.
Hannah Horvath: take note.
(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)
Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.
This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”
(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)
Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.
“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.
“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.
“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”
“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.
(David Kruger, second-year poet)
I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.
Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.
Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.
(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)
4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.
4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.
5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.
5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.
(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)
Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.
Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.
It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”
Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”
They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.
(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)
There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.
In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.
Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.
I should ask my students what they think.
(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)
On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”
He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.
(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)
After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.
(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)
…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.
This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:
1. The wish to write a good story is fake.
2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.
3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.
4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.
(Andy Axel, first-year poet)
“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”
1 discreet tree relief
10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed
11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks
12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room
1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu
2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious
3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater
5 child ode to cat:
“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.
You are like a light when you surprise me.
Do you speak Spanish?”
6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas
7 my view field’s all baldspot
11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots
12 enough of weather
(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)
After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).
I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.
Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.
In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.
I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.
On readings and parties:
(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)
A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.
She gives me a ride to the doctor.
My eyes are fine.
Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.
Take sanitary breaks, she says.
Take mind off.
There are layers among the distances, magnifications.
Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.
When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.
I buy a few Valentines.
I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.
It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.
I also make one Valentine from two.
They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.
Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.
Ditto the poetry reading that night.
Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.
Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?
A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.
(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)
Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.
I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.
(Will Jameson, first-year poet)
Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.
(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)
“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”
For Emma Woodhouse
Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn
willow branches two at a time, saying
you know I know
how to respond
in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken
hearts before), spine-burn
running thru your hands, but the other
white-hot willows nearby
I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival
I can’t never show you.
(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)
I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.
I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.
Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.
Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.
(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)
I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.
(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)
After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.
The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.
Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.
Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”
He was wearing a three-piece, olive green, wool blend suit, and, casually placed atop a table, was his patterned silk scarf and hat. Gay Talese is not exactly a household name, but in the world of writers he is very well known. As I sat listening to the famed journalist in conversation with Max Linsky of Longform.org, at an October 10 event at NYU, I found myself scribbling as fast as the words came out of his mouth.
Without further scene setting, here are 10 things I learned that Mr. Talese noted would land me a job at The New York Times. (Mr. Talese, from your mouth to their ears.)
1. Pursue Your Curiosity.
In his essay, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” Talese writes of his “eavesdropping youth” spent in his mother’s dress shop, which was “a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner of my mother.” This notion of curiosity is seen in the minor characters –– the ordinary people –– he championed throughout his career, as in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the entire interview is an amalgam of minor characters, from the lady who held Sinatra’s wigs to the press agent and the preening blondes on barstools. Talese didn’t want to write about Frank Sinatra for Esquire because, as he told us, everything had already been written about Sinatra. When he finally agreed to do the essay, he said, “It was almost better that Sinatra couldn’t talk to me.”
2. Be Well Dressed.
Or like Talese, never underestimate the value of a good first impression, or a three-piece suit.
3. Never Use the Phone.
I didn’t ask if phone translated to the Internet but, based on this list, and my impressions, my guess is he would tell writers not to use the Internet, unless it was to get someone’s home address. Of the inadequacy of the phone, Talese wrote: “I also believe people will reveal more of themselves to you if you are physically present.” Joan Didion also spoke of disliking the phone, not because it was a short cut, but rather because she didn’t like to talk.
4. Show Up at Your Source’s Front Door.
A helpful piece of advice, but as our world has become almost transparently public, so too has it become secretive and private. House visits, phone calls, and the personal touch have been replaced by emails, texting, and tweeting. Many of the scoops Talese wrote about he got because of his in-person doggedness: showing up at Nita Naldi’s hotel, talking to the headline operator in theater district, the groundskeeper at a pet cemetery.
5. Do More Research Than You Think Is Necessary.
In the recently annotated version of his essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” –– published by Nieman Storyboard –– Gay spoke of the inventive way he sourced a particular quote for use in the profile: “That quote was published. I lifted it out of a magazine article about Marilyn Monroe that was written by Maurice Zolotow. I just clipped it. I took it out and I stuck it in there, and it took on a meaningfulness, a dimension. Hell, I never interviewed Marilyn Monroe. So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem.”
6. Talk to People at Length or Learn the Art of Hanging Out.
Another writer who speaks of this is Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
7. Be Polite and Learn How to Ask Questions without Being Nosy.
Talese learned early how to fade into the background as he watched his mom talk to her dress shop customers, as they tried on clothes while “discussing their private lives and the happenings and misadventures of their friends and neighbors.” When asked how to develop that trust, Talese said, “Journalism is like going out on a date.”
8. Don’t Use A Tape Recorder.
This is a sticking point for me. How do you accurately capture quotes without a recording device? Talese told the audience, “Don’t use a tape recorder, because then you have their exact words. You are a partner in the quotation. The quote is polished in your prose.” When prodded further, Talese said he would ask the questions again and again so that he could refine and get at what they really meant. The final quote, he told the audience, needs to be in your voice, with your tone, not the black and white words. Later in the conversation, Talese expanded on this by saying that he would include in his notes: “What they say, what he [Talese] says, and what they think.” His use of interior monologue was a tool Tom Wolfe complimented him on in his discussion of The New Journalism.
9. Don’t Take Notes in Front of People.
From out of the front pocket of his elegant suit, Talese removed a small stack of cardboard scraps, explaining they were the collar stays from his button-down shirts. When he interviewed his subjects he would slip into a bathroom to jot down notes, and at night he would type them up, along with his recollections of the day.
10. Write with Respect, and Don’t Mistreat Anyone in Print.
Joan Didion writes in the preface to her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that since she is “neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” Talese writes of his subjects from a place of extreme interest, striving for a deep understanding in the “social and historical forces that contributed to their character –– or lack of character.”
As a writer’s writer, Talese delivered these tips from a somewhat mythical place where pieces in magazines were paid for handsomely, weren’t due in one day, and were allowed to run at considerable lengths. While the above list seems both obvious and difficult, as a writer who would love to write 15,000 words about an ordinary person, I’m willing to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, at least I’m ready with my backup, also recommended by Gay Talese: “Get a job in a restaurant, and in your downtime: write.”
Bonus Link: Gay Talese’s sports writing is destined to last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Yesterday, for the first time since arriving in Munich 10 days ago, I successfully ordered a glass of water. This is much harder than it sounds. German waiters never offer you water with the menu, which means you have to order it; but make sure to ask specifically for tap water, or else they’ll pop open a bottle and expect you to pay. The major obstacle, of course, is how it’s pronounced. “A glass of water”: Leitungswasser. And that’s without the “Can I please have…?”
I mastered my latte order, but have nonetheless been dying of thirst. (Never mind that a glass of water always comes in what looks like a shot glass.) I even started bringing my very American aluminum water bottle to restaurants and trying to fit it under the tap in the bathrooms’ miniature sinks.
After a week of this, David, my boyfriend, who has been living in Munich for almost two years, made me practice “Can I have a glass of water please?” all the way to the café. “Ich hätte gern ein Leitungswasser bitte. Just keep repeating it,” he said as we trudged through the snow, laptops slung over our shoulders. “Lei-tungs-wasser. That’s how you’ll remember.”
I tried using a mnemonic device: “lie” then “tomb” then, with a British accent, “vase” — lie tombs vaaah-sa — but I kept picturing an Egyptian tomb with some tulips strewn about.
I grew up in Montreal speaking English and French, and, in high school and college, studied Spanish. German, in my view, is much harder than all of those languages combined — although David tells me this is not empirically true.
He is a linguist, which means that he has over 40 language and/or dictionary apps on his iPod Touch. He also knows more than his fair share of languages, and is always eager to pick up another. During our first conversation, I asked him how many he knew.
After a long silence, he finally said, “Twenty or 30?”
“But most of them are dead!”
He claims that English is the only language he can actually speak. This is modesty at its worst. He studies ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, and can communicate quite fluently in German, Chinese, Hebrew, and Spanish. After being in Munich for less than a year, he taught a linguistics course at the university in German. He’s currently teaching himself French and carries a pocket French-German phrasebook wherever he goes. If I leave the room, when I come back he has already figured out how to tell me, in perfectly accented, perfectly conjugated French, that Sarkozy has announced his bid for re-election. He can’t wait for our trip to Paris.
I’m still working on Wasser.
I have come to Munich from New York to live with David while he finishes a post-doctoral fellowship at the Thesaurus linguae Latinae — the Latin equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. David writes entries — or definitions — for Latin words, in Latin. The letter “A” was published in 1900. Right now, the team is working on both “N” and “R” — “Q” has been deemed too difficult and is being foisted on a future generation of scholars. When they completed “P,” in 2010, they had a party. The whole venture is supported by the Bavarian government.
“Who’s the dictionary for?” I asked him when he first told me about it.
“I think we’re writing it for God,” he said.
Since I’m a graduate student in the throes of thesis writing, I sublet my Brooklyn apartment, which I have lived in for 11 years, and flew over with a handful of books and a partially finished manuscript. We’ll go back to the city in June.
Back home, swimming breaks my day in half, so one of our first expeditions was to the local pool. Germans take their pools as seriously as New Yorkers take their gyms and yoga studios — they are open all day, every day. Our pool even has a tram stop named after it: Nordbad. The biggest pool was built for the 1972 Summer Games, and you can watch Olympic-caliber divers perform three or four beautiful flips off the highest platform. The first day I saw this, I immediately flashed to Greg Louganis cracking his skull open in Seoul.
If you think the Germans run their pools the way they run their trains, as I did, you would be wrong. Instead, imagine being dropped into a pen with dozens of people in blindfolds, swimming at each other.
Because I am a New Yorker this shocked me. During our inaugural visit, the chaos left me standing waist-deep in chlorine with my hands up in the air and my mouth ajar. Getting to the other end of the pool was like playing a game of chicken: who’s going to yield first?
I’ve been swimming in NYC pools for over six years (Red Hook remains my favorite), and order — signs: fast swimmers here, slow ones over there; and an agreed-upon system: let’s go up this side, down the other — is the only thing that keeps us from killing each other. When someone passes me without warning (by neglecting to tap my foot), causing a collision, I have more than once stopped and yelled out, “Really?!”
I don’t yet know how to say that in German, nor do I think it’s culturally acceptable. I’m left to muddle through.
During the day, the Nordbad is far less crowded. One wall is made up almost entirely of windows, so the space is doused in white winter light. The swimmers aren’t in a hurry. Young women swim side by side in pairs, chatting as they move leisurely through the breaststroke. They look like old friends on an early morning jog, minus the fanny packs. In a country where no one jaywalks and everyone pays (actually pays) for the subway on the honor system, the loosening of order here in the water is curious.
On the far end of the deck, down a few stairs and through thick plastic flaps of the kind you find at a New York deli, there is a massive outdoor hot tub. Because Europe is in the midst of a great freeze, thick clouds of mist hover and dance above the surface of the water, making it hard to see what company you’re keeping. Clearings reveal old ladies in shower caps doing water aerobics. Under the water, your body is hot, but the air slipping into your lungs is clear and extremely cold.
With language out of reach, it’s hard not to feel as if I’m in a dream, or that I’ve crossed over to another world. The buildings surrounding the tub on three sides are old — peach and yellow, with wrought-iron balconies — and coated in snow. I could have been in 19th-century Russia. Today it was snowing, so we drifted along with our bare shoulders under the water, snowflakes dissolving into our wet hair.
When the tongue being spoken all around you is just a slew of unintelligible sounds — and the signs mere hieroglyphics — your own words seem to mean more, to fall more heavily to the page and into the air. Something about this unnerves me — do I really want what I say and what I write to resonate that loudly, to be the heavy stones that fall all the way to the bottom of the ocean and rest there?
Image courtesy of the author.
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.No better does the difference between books and the book business make itself known than on the Sunday of the Frankfurt Book Fair. A severe degree of indifference descends on one Hall as rabid bookishness thrives in others. I had been warned, but the bustle of the first few days caused me to chalk up these claims to hyperbole. After endless meetings between publishers and sales people, agents, printers, packagers, fulfillment houses and foreign rights managers – and don’t forget the nights that can easily last all morning – the weekend (especially Sunday) was dead in the Frankfurt Messe’s Hall 8: the cavern of commerce that housed, primarily, English-language publishers.With the chance to visit one of the other Halls (there are 10, making the Javits Center in New York look like my one-bedroom apartment), you begin to grasp the breadth of what publishing looks like all over the world, so long as you are willing to contend with the throngs of book fans, only a small portion of whom bother to trawl the Hall 8 aisles, where by noon on Sunday the crackling of packing tape replaced the cacophonous chatter of deal making so constant during the early going.It is an overwhelming experience, no matter the size of the company or nature of its books or services. Everyone is there to do business (as opposed to show off books). My visits to other halls were limited in light of how much time I spent at the Messe from Tuesday evening’s set-up to Sunday evening’s teardown. I never saw the agents’ pavilion, or the TV and Film Hall. The other international Halls hosted publishing industry outfits from across the globe, all of which were situated in loose regional confederacies.The hometown German publishing Hall was packed all the time, as was Hall 4, where you found illustrated book publishers and incredibly high-end book arts publishers and artisans (including New York’s own Booklyn). I returned to Hall 4 the most (for my own meetings and for curiosity’s sake). If I could read German, I would covet all of Orange’s books; Index from Spain is great; the books from Lars Mueller were a revelation – Who Owns the Water being one of my better personal acquisitions of the week.But, as I said, and as The New York Times reported, Frankfurt at its core is about the business of books. According to the October 13 Frankfurt Book Fair Daily, in 2006 the world’s 45 largest publishers generated $73 billion in revenue! Yes, billion. McGraw-Hill Education came in 7th on the list, the most profitable American publisher with just over $2.5 billion in earnings. The next two spots also belong to American companies, Reader’s Digest and Scholastic respectively. Of those three companies’ business, very little of it has to do with fiction, or even trade books for that matter. The top earners are more mixed, highlighting, like the Fair itself, just how huge the global book industry is, and why wheeling and dealing foreign rights and film options are one of the event’s priorities.And so, after several days steeping in this environment, it only seems natural to ponder the state of the book business today. It is lucrative, but it is clear that if these larger companies intend to plump their cash cows they must make changes that will, eventually, affect the actual books.Two encounters stick with me as indicative of these shifts. The first happened during a wonderful little dinner party. Of the 10 or 12 of us in attendance, I was the most “indie” of the crew, meaning I have never been involved in a six-figure deal (or five-figure for that matter). These were agents and industry entrepreneurs, Americans and Europeans. Friendly and interesting, I was sorry that we adjourned to a noisy party where reasonable conversation went by the wayside.Prior to that, however, I learned about DailyLit.com from its co-founder Susan Danziger. The basic idea is this: books are emailed to you bit-by-bit. Available titles include public-domain classics, as well as contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction in a few different languages (illustrated books are also in the works). The contemporary books require paid subscriptions, and I was told that the program’s subscribers number in the hundreds of thousands. It seems to me that it is misleading to say this service is about reading books; it’s really more about reading the textual contents of books. It is, without a doubt, though, about publishing. A great deal of us, myself included, spend large amounts of time in front of screens. DailyLit.com aims to add some well-worded and intriguing distractions to help us better use our Time, that ever more elusive and flitting notion. The trend to reformat books into our digitally reliant ways was apparent at the Fair, from Google’s impressive stand to the number of e-book makers, sermonizing about convenience and lifestyle, efficiency and the future.As I manned the Mark Batty Publisher booth on Sunday morning, bored and tired, an Australian woman stopped to fondle a few of the books. As she flipped the pages issuing exclamations about the lovely photographs and design, she mentioned that she worked with e-books. I nodded and said that I would never read one. Having obviously heard such a sentiment before, the perky Aussie said defensively, “We’ll get you all one day, this is the future of reading.” Judging by the popularity of DailyLit.com (a relatively new endeavor) and the hordes of money being invested in converting such assertions into fact, there are many interests that want to see the future of reading as something that does not involve ink on paper. And in light of the way we live now, perhaps the public’s demand will in fact secure these new models.But this next anecdote contests the public’s willingness to start dismantling their bookshelves in order to make room for new flat-screen televisions on which they could as easily watch a movie or read a new novel. This encounter happened even farther away from the capacious Messe, at the bar in my hotel out by the airport. I met a German engineer in town for work, and on his way back home to Connecticut. He knew of the Fair, but his trip had to do with installing a machine in a factory. He was curious about the Fair for a very exact reason, however. He had a meeting coming up with a Silicon Valley company (he had already signed a non-disclosure agreement so he could not tell me which company) that, according to my new friend, planned to open close to 60 print-on-demand facilities in the United States within the next couple of years.Because this gentleman could not divulge fully the nature of the business in question, it is fair to assume that these facilities would not strictly be used for vanity publishing, but rather they will allow businesses to order an array of printed material with greater ease than traditional off-set printers, though he did ask me if I had seen many print-on-demand books. His background was in printing and he was dubious about the quality of the books such machines could offer, suggesting that vanity publishing was indeed an aspect of this Silicon Valley company’s business plan. No matter the products made in these 60 facilities, it is a return to ink on paper. We as a culture have not yet totally disregarded the paper page’s status as a valuable vessel for information.In the case of vanity publishing books, however, these would mostly be sold through non-traditional outlets, if they were sold at all. These products would be the blog equivalent of codex books, objects made because the authors want to see their words printed on bound pages. And like with blogs, some of these books could of course be quite good, while many of them would doubtlessly be middling, yet they would exist nonetheless. (Admittedly, the major difference between blogs and print-on-demand books is that the books usually still cost something.) Hang around with enough writers and you will inevitably hear frustrated rants about the difficulty of getting their completed works published. Take that small portion of the population and couple it with everyday folks who want to tell their stories or spout off about politics, and you have lots of potential books.Now, these books, for the most part, would not be shopped around in a setting like Frankfurt, but that is the point. Books and the book business are not the same and the rift becomes apparent during this international trade show, which is so all-consuming for its attendees that it bounces back at them time and again, even once the day’s meetings have ended and the parties begin. I knew this, of course, because even in the small and independent strata of publishing this reality rears its head more than I care to admit. It is a business that no matter the scale requires many participants, all of whom expect, and deserve, to be paid for their services.Perhaps at the heart of this is how the range of services that falls under the publishing umbrella is expanding, and how all of the interests strive, and struggle, to keep up. The Frankfurt Book Fair has a history that reaches back to the time of Gutenberg, and what this behemoth of an event proves is that it will most likely have a future that extends for another 500 years. What that future looks like remains to be seen, but the hints become more apparent, as this year’s innovations become next year’s standards, or running jokes.No matter what, however, the beautifully designed and well-printed book is not going anywhere, and that should be a comfort to anyone that has ever loved the experience of reading one.
My grandfather died two weeks ago, in his bed, by the sea in Maine. Two days earlier, perhaps with a little help from his morphine, he looked out his bay window and said: “I am going to run across that water.”
I was reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights at the time. On the aftermath of her daughter’s death, Didion writes: “‘Maintain momentum’ was the imperative that echoed … In fact I had no idea what would happen if I lost it.”
The passage struck me. I, too, felt the drive toward momentum. Not wanting to stop and think about my grandfather’s death, mostly not wanting to feel it, I was looking for things to do. From the Poetry Society of America events calendar, I read that a young artist, Jon Cotner, had set up an installation in the woods called Poem Forest. The name alone intrigued me.
Just days after Grandpa died — I should maintain momentum, I told myself.
It had only been three weeks since our last conversation. We’d talked by phone. I was walking my dog. Grandpa would have been sitting at that bay window, where he always sat, too arthritic to move, looking out on the ocean. “You’re looking good, Rosie!” he said. It was a joke — obviously, by phone he couldn’t see me. I laughed. This was our shtick. “You’re looking good, too, Grandpa. Nice haircut.” He was bald. My childhood nickname was Rainbow Rose. Most everything we said to each other was based off familiarity, old jokes.
“Where are you now?” he wanted to know. “I’m on Broadway, Gramps!” I said, trying to speak over the sounds of traffic. “Where, honey?” “I’m on Broadway!”
Just an ordinary exchange.
How could he be gone?
How could I answer this question? I continued reading about Poem Forest, a self-guided, twenty-minute, walk through the woods. It was unusual. Cotner placed 15 numbered signposts along Sweetgum Trail at The New York Botanical Garden. He also provided handouts at the beginning of the walk that included 15 numbered lines as excerpts from 15 different poems. At each signpost, a walker was to stop and read the line of poetry that coordinated with that post. What was most interesting to me was the idea that, by reading such lines in various parts of the woods, participants would be able to “see and sense more clearly, to inhabit the present more deeply, and to fill with enchantment.” So relayed the event description.
Soon, I was yo-yoing between doubt and hope. I didn’t really think Poem Forest would make me feel better, but I convinced myself it could. It was the word “enchantment” that really did it for me, a tug toward the spiritual, what I took to be the possibility of a panacea.
A past professor put me in touch with Jon, who, in his emails, was eager to discuss the work. He told me he had just published a different walking piece in The Believer; it had involved an eight-mile trek across Fire Island with his fiancée, Claire Hamilton. They created a slideshow of the journey — she took the pictures, and he wrote the captions. From the link he provided in one of his emails, I watched a slideshow that moved like a graphic short story, an art form I particularly fancied.
The duo had also collaborated on a slideshow for the BMW Guggenheim Lab. To get an idea of what this project is like, take the outline from The Believer piece and replace Fire Island with Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn.
Through our exchange, I also learned that Jon had co-authored a book with Andy Fitch called Ten Walks/Two Talks, consisting mainly of their conversations and resulting epiphanies as they engage with each other and New York City.
All of Jon’s projects advocated connecting to your surroundings. The more we emailed, the more excited I became. It seemed oddly providential that our paths be crossing now.
I told Jon I had walked El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage through Spain, and I wanted to understand how his outlook on walking related to mine. I’d always moved to avoid unwanted emotions, as a distraction, I told him. When I walked El Camino I was frustrated and sad. I did not want to cope with my pain. I wanted to steamroll right through it.
This can’t work, of course. But, oh how tempting it is to try.
The next Saturday, I was standing at the bottom of Sweetgum Trail, waiting to meet Jon Cotner before beginning my walk. I was early, and a volunteer said Jon was finishing up some last minute trail maintenance. I didn’t mind waiting — above me, the sky cloudless. The air — perfect for November — neither warm enough to elicit anxiety in one’s inner environmentalist nor cold enough to cut the skin.
Soon, Jon was running down the trail.
We introduced ourselves, shook hands. He was exactly as I expected, poised. He was tall and stood with perfect posture, and was focused and concerned that each signpost on the path was properly angled, positioned just right. He was also polite and warm, excited about Poem Forest. How it allowed walkers to participate with the art, by moving through it.
“I look at this piece,” he said referring to Poem Forest, “as a perception primer.”
What, I wondered, would I perceive?
I began, aware that though I was in one of the most beautiful parks in New York City, I was still, in fact, in New York City. Teenagers bounced off each other as they passed me. I passed a leaf-rubbing table for toddlers. The numbered signposts were laminated, and the flashes of plastic seemed out of place against the old wooden guardrails covered in moss and lichen. I encountered a woman painting a watercolor alone; the designer dog sitting beneath her bench was wearing a zebra-print coat. I sucked in my breath, tried to corner my scattered thoughts. I already wanted to be elsewhere — in Maine, with my family, where soon I would be.
This walk is meditative; it works, I struggled to convince myself, if I remember to focus on my breath. The interruptions shouldn’t matter as much as my focus. I tried to see clearly.
Fire-orange and red leaves were hanging from gray flaking branches, and the dark brown leaves on the ground crushed beneath my boots.
Signpost number three: The nature of yesterday / Is not nature. / What has been, is nothing.
What should have been a dreamy line of poetry felt insensitive, even mean. Thinking of Grandpa, I took it personally.
The air tasted clean. A crisp autumn breeze. I walked, hoping, not really believing, that something amazing would happen, something enchanting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did?
The walk would have been lovely. There was nothing not beautiful about it. But that afternoon in the forest, I relearned an old lesson. There is no antidote to grief. There are only ways to cope.
My grief aside, I was still intrigued by what Poem Forest had to offer.
I walked the trail again later that afternoon. This time with Jon. Part of the art, he said, is in the dialogue and in the thinking aloud.
I asked him something that was bothering me. Jon had called Poem Forest a perception primer. But what if there were things in this world you did not want to recognize?
Jon said he believed being here in the forest was greatly political. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In came to mind, the idea of advocating your beliefs by enacting them. Jon brought up Occupy Wall Street, his eyes refracting the colors of the leaves and the light that entered in glints: “Part of the trouble of our troubled times is a lack of perception.” Which could have been an academic response, a cop-out, except he immediately applied this philosophy to reality: “Did you notice, by the way, the [line of poetry] one stone is not like the other?” He motioned to the signpost by the river. “Did you notice the rocks around the riverbank?”
I hadn’t, but Jon pointed out the failed attempts to build a wall along the water’s edge. The rocks didn’t fit together, and the wall was eroding.
Then he said, “Isn’t it great to hear the rushing water? That it’s always making this sound?”
But my mind was still on the wall — and the probability that it would take me decades to work up to a perceptiveness as keen as Jon’s.
We continued talking and walking. Jon, with a mind like a library, quoted thinkers from Heraclitus to Frank O’Hara.
Regarding Poem Forest itself, the philosophy was quite simple. Jon said, “To some extent, this is an exercise in de-familiarization.”
Clearly, I was out of shape.
After finishing our walk, we continued talking until it was time for me to catch the train back home (the dog would need walking). As Jon and I moved toward the elevated platform, we agreed that a lucid perception of your surroundings slows time. As opposed to how some people experience life, as Jon put it, “in a trance.”
I thought about Grandpa and — how quickly time goes. And then, I thought: I don’t want to live in a trance. I want to appreciate everything.
On the elevated platform, I tried to see it all: the train rattling closer, silver cars luminous in the sun. The air was getting cold. Inside the train: florescent light scattering rectangles along the glossy backs of plastic seats. There were people — everywhere. I felt crowded. My mind began to wander, already. Already? My head against the clammy seat, I was tempted: If I just close my eyes, maybe I will sleep. And if I sleep, I won’t have to think. And when I wake up, I will get off this train, and it will be as though no time has passed.
Except it will have.
So my eyes were open, and there I was, on a train that hadn’t even started moving.
Images: Claire Hamilton
The baby toys will be the first to go — no use in packing them up; by the time they are unearthed again she’ll find them infantile anyway, pieces of plastic she’ll toss out of the bin to get to the better stuff, her head buried in the search. I’ll put them in the corner of the room next to the boxes of winter coats and try not to worry about where they’ll go next. Probably into the garbage barrels in the courtyard next to the bicycles, although a more organized person would have found a friend with a younger baby or at least a charity that would happily take them, but my Internet research skills are still poor in German, and all our friends with younger babies have already moved.
Holding onto people here, so far from where we came from, is like trying to make time stand still; the second you settle into some semblance of routine — dinner, Friday, as usual, our place or yours? We’ll bring a salad and that chocolate cake I froze earlier this week? — you get together for coffee and there it is: We’re moving.
Well, fuck you, too.
How many times had this happened in three years? The slow unveiling, a few bottles in, all of us relaxed around the dinner table after the push to get everyone sat and fed. Reclining while the kids played across the apartment for a few minutes without intervention, plates wiped clean, rice and wine drops splattered across placemats, puddles of food under the kids’ chairs, all to be cleaned up later or in the morning, or days on when someone slipped on a browning mash of avocado. I’d look around and think, this is okay, this is really a fine life, we really have managed, and that’s when it would come up.
So. The couple looking at each other across the wreckage. So.
Soon we will be those people: too busy to get together for goodbye picnics and spontaneous trips to the Spielplatz because all our time is spent sorting through bags of baby clothes — onesies I stuffed into a drawer when the snaps refused to close — or researching daycares, buying plane tickets, combing Craig’s List for affordable apartments. A life of half-packed bags and endless regenerating lists and piles of mismatched crap you think you’ll sort through but will eventually end up in the trash with the rest; a life of pulling your heart slowly out of a place before knowing exactly where you’ll set it down next.
I thought leaving this apartment, at least, would be easy — we’ve spent much of the last two years cursing it, dreaming about moving: its tiny kitchen for one, the too-thin wall that separates our room from the baby’s — she’ll be so close, it’ll be cozy, our stupidly childless selves thought — the total lack of sunlight in the living room, the many flights of stairs the baby all too often refuses to climb (“Mama, carry you!”). We fell in love with it when we first saw it: the impossibly high ceilings, the neighborhood that could trick you into thinking you were in Berlin or Brooklyn. The spare furniture: enough to keep us from eating off paper plates on the floor but not too overwhelming to have stepped into someone else’s taste. It was a place — our first — that we could really make our own.
Now neither of us knows why we fell so hard — most of the flat is dark and the furniture looks, if this is possible, both ancient and like it’s from the ’80s, heavy wooden cabinets equipped with rusted keys, consoles with diagonal designs and rounded edges and shiny gold knobs. The gauzy white curtains are splattered with yellow flowers. My husband didn’t want to risk our deposit by making holes in the plaster, so the walls are still mostly white and bare, save an 8×10 sketch of a tree that wasn’t offensive enough to take down. (Save, too, the inadvertent crayon murals in the kid’s room.)
“This isn’t our stuff!” is the first thing I say to anyone who walks in. This isn’t us! has been my perpetual refrain. One day, somewhere, I’ll show you what is.
But leaving this place also means leaving those last weeks of pregnancy, when we’d take nightly walks from our old sublet over to the new place, my husband lugging a few bags of clothing over his shoulder, or pushing the pram loaded up with toiletries and paperbacks with one arm, our fingers locked together in the hand of the other, our future always just a few blocks off. I’d come by in the afternoons to check on something — did the kitchen house a Cafeteria, a salad spinner, a good sharp knife? — and inadvertently take a nap on the bare mattress, wake up not knowing where I was, tiny legs kicking at my insides.
It means leaving the first home our daughter ever knew: where, in the throes of early mobility, she bounded off the couch and onto her head on the wood with a smack, both of us screaming; where I gathered her up so that our hearts were pressed together, beating wildly. Where she shoved her shoes onto the wrong feet and yelled, “Noa do it, allein!” when either of us tried to help. Where, when she was a very small baby, I spent hours worrying I might tilt the massive window open a little too widely, just enough to tip myself out.
To be an expat is to always feel slightly on the fringe of things. It is to perpetually be a little lost, to live with the nagging feeling that your life — your real life, the one in which you can speak to the grocer, the pharmacist, or on the phone, the one in which you have your choice of jobs, of friends, of pantry-staples — is happening elsewhere. It is to no longer really belong anywhere; to lose the ability to say, with total assuredness, This is my home.
Three years ago, my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria. I came from Brooklyn, where I had lived for a dozen years; he moved from Munich, Germany, where he had been for two. Next summer, right after our daughter — our born and bred Wienerkind — turns three, we will relocate our small family to the other edge of the western world, to Los Angeles, a place that is almost as foreign to me as Vienna once was. As the wife of an academic on the tenure-track prowl, I’ve spent three years wondering where and when we’d go, perpetually holding my breath; trying to forge roots — always knowing I’d eventually have to pull them loose.
My husband and I were married within a year of meeting, a year during which my idea of home was flipped, in an instant, on its head. I lucked into a rent-stabilized apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, at 23 and held onto it — furnishing it with second-hand wares from Housing Works, inherited dishware from my older sister, and then slowly upgrading one bedspread and rug at a time — for 11 years. During that time, there was much upheaval in my life — an overhaul in careers, one particular boyfriend coming and going, short stints away in Boulder and Harlem and Montreal — but the apartment, a rickety, sunny one-bedroom on a tree-lined side street, always took me back it. It is the place where I learned to live alone, where I recovered from surgery and heartbreak and the myriad joys and indignities of life as a single girl in New York. It provided a sense of stability where there was otherwise very little.
When my husband — then a stranger — swept in from afar, in the form of an email from Germany, everything changed.
Come live with me in Munich, he asked, after our first two-week long date. (He’d flown in for it after months of emails and Skype calls.) It’ll only be for four months, until my fellowship is over. We can try it out. I had just finished graduate school, my teaching job was only one-semester long, and I had no plans but to finish my thesis. At the end of the experiment, we’d go back to Brooklyn. (I never imagined leaving New York for good.)
Two months into our stint in Munich, he was offered a six-year fellowship in Vienna — a place, like Munich, that I had never thought twice about. The decision to go with him to Germany had been relatively easy, if impulsive — it was time-limited, an almost preposterously romantic way to test out our burgeoning love. I wouldn’t need to find a job or friends or a place to live. Vienna, of course, would be different.
But so was I: In New York, my life had been made up of a web of close girlfriends, women I saw many days a week for dinner, for drinks, for yoga, with whom I shared every detail of my existence. But all through the long winter in Munich, this new man and I lived a cocoon-like existence, spending time with no one but each other. Europe was in the midst of a deep freeze and it snowed all through February and March. Every night ended under mounds of blankets, our bodies intertwined. We lived in a studio apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, and I’d sit in our only Ikea chair and write, watching flakes sweep by and land on our small balcony, which, once summer came, we dubbed “the other room.” We ate Weisswurst with mustard and pretzels with butter, drank beer and gluhwein and bottle upon bottle of cheap red wine — together, always together. I had a decade’s worth of stuff piled into my Carroll Gardens apartment — shelves of books, framed photos of family along every wall, dresses and coats taking on the shape of the coat hangers in the closet — but had packed only one big suitcase, half a dozen memoirs for inspiration. It was all I needed. I had never been so happy, so unencumbered, in so many ways. By the time we decided to take the leap, to move to Vienna, to hitch our wagons to each other for good, he had become my home.
When we got the news that we’d be moving to L.A., I hid in our bedroom and cried — not because I didn’t want to go (I did, there are so many reasons I did, I do), but because I realized — despite how difficult it had been to settle in, despite my almost unending resistance to fully assimilate to Austrian life — how many roots I had actually managed to put down here. How many would, in the end, be yanked out.
If Munich was a time for us to become two, Vienna has been a time for us to become three, a family. But because this is so difficult — so surprisingly unintuitive, so frustrating at times, especially without the net of old friends or family nearby, of any previous existence in this place, of a sturdy decades-long marriage to hold us steady — it has been a time for me to erect scaffolding around us, as I once did in Brooklyn: the strong support beams that friendship provides. These friends — women, mostly, with small children and roots elsewhere — have become my means of survival, a way of finding my rightful place in a strange land. It has been a time to say, Come by tonight. We’ll serve you dinner on borrowed plates, on borrowed time. To say: Please, let’s not forget how close our girls became. Come visit us when we get there.
Now, for the first time in our relationship, we are moving to a place where we will presumably stay for good, or at least for a real chunk of time: Where we can unpack boxes of wedding gifts that have collected dust in my mother-in-law’s guest room and unroll carpets from Carroll Gardens that have be sitting in my parents’ basement and place them just so; where we can buy that long wooden table we’ve been longing for. Where we can make holes in the walls, hang our lives up for our guests to see: This is us! I’ll be able to say. This is us! See? This is who we really are! We’re finally home!
But I’ll know, deep down: That was us, too — the ugly curtains and the ancient consoles. The shiny leather sofa, the pastel blue mugs, the Austrian pillows that made us wake with aches in our necks. Of course it was. That new couple struggling to become a family in a foreign place where everything in our possession was on loan from other expats or belonged to our landlord; where very little made sense, and we were forever trying to find our footing, forever wondering where we’d be next, forever ready to pack up shop, to unload for good: That was us, too. We were home.
I just didn’t know it then.
Photo courtesy of the author.